1) Mental fatigue proves to be Hamilton Academical’s undoing
Speaking after his side’s 1-1 draw at Livingston, Hamilton Academical manager Alex Neil claimed his players were experiencing a comedown from last weekend’s stalemate draw with Dundee. It certainly showed – they were flat and unimaginative throughout and only really sparked into action as the match began to draw to a close. Stephen Hendrie’s red card after 52 minutes was indicative of a team mentally ill-prepared for the match – they were let down by poor decision-making throughout the contest, from Martin Canning’s reckless lunge at Mark Burchill to concede a penalty (which Marc McNulty smashed against the crossbar), to the failure to prevent Kyle Jacobs from poking home a loose ball to give Livi the lead.
In the first half, Neil moved his players from a 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3 and then back again in an attempt to turn the match in his side’s favour, but it failed to work and Livingston were generally the better side for the majority of the contest. It also showed up the lack of depth in the Accies squad – Mickael Antoine-Curier made way for the youthful Andy Ryan after 66 minutes and although the forward brought energy and enthusiasm to the proceedings, his inexperience told as he attempted several wayward shots from distance.
The Accies deserve credit for their refusal to wilt in the face of defeat, but Jason Scotland’s equaliser came about through some blundering in the Livi defence – the burly striker was ignored, ten yards from goal, when he collected the ball and passed it into the net (although Darren Jamieson was unfortunate not to block, gambling with an early dive as the ball rolled into the space he had just vacated).
A drop off in form might have been coming but this is a moment when Hamilton can ill-afford to cede any points – at this stage, there is no margin of error. The penultimate weekend might prove decisive: the Accies take on Dumbarton at the Rock while Dundee travel to Greenock Morton. The outcome of both matches could have an irrevocable impact on outcome of the Championship title. CF
2) Falkirk have their eye on second place
Falkirk’s 2-1 victory over Queen of the South at Palmerston represented their fourth consecutive league win. That is the best streak the Bairns have achieved this season and they are finishing the campaign in championship winning form… It just might be that they’ve run out of games to accomplish so.
Hamilton Academical’s slip up at Livingston has allowed Falkirk to catch up to the extent that they are only two points behind the Accies in second, but still remain four points behind Dundee after Paul Hartley’s side won 4-0 at home to Cowdenbeath. It could be argued that from the three remaining match rounds, Falkirk’s two home fixtures compared to Dundee’s one give the Bairns an easier run in to the end of the season, but four points and a slightly inferior goal difference still seems too much to overcome.
Falkirk did well to get the better of Queen of the South away from home, with Queens having won five of their previous nine matches with a view to claiming the last play-off spot as their own. Falkirk seemed to start with a 4-2-3-1 with Ollie Durojaiye partnering Mark Millar at the back of the away team’s midfield, but against Queens’ 4-4-2 diamond Gary Holt appeared to realise that Durojaiye wasn’t needed further back and released him into a central attacking midfield position. Falkirk enjoyed spells of sustained pressure in the first half, but with a lack of killer instinct notable in Rory Loy’s absence.
Queens’ double substitution early in the second half, bringing on Derek Lyle and Iain Russell, appeared to be the inadvertent catalyst for an action-packed ten-minute spell. Falkirk countered with Mark Beck holding the ball up for Blair Alston to collect and drag the ball to the outside-right channel and as Queens were getting plenty of players back to deal with the attack, Alston combined with Conor McGrandles for an intricate one-two before drilling a shot outside the laces into the far corner. That was almost immediately followed by a Michael McGovern long ball on top of the Queens defence which tested Andy Dowie on the back foot – Dowie could only contrive to head the ball backwards at full stretch, which Beck anticipated before lobbing the ball over the Zander Clark in goal.
Not long after that, Chris Higgins’s excellent hook from a set-piece rattled the woodwork but landed to Gavin Reilly to bring his side back into the match. Then Johnny Flynn clattered into a challenge with no chance to get the ball that brought his dismissal, meaning that the Doonhamers had more than 20 minutes to get something out of the match with a player more than the visitors. The goal never came, despite almost limitless pressure from Queens playing exclusively in Falkirk’s half for the remainder of the match, with only brief counter-attacks from their opponents. With Chris Mitchell having the freedom to curl in crosses to the far post from deep, Falkirk defended well in their box but were fortunate that Lewis Kidd’s left-footed shot from eight yards rebounded off the middle of the far post.
Could Falkirk finish better than their last three third place finishes since relegation from the top flight? They have they quality to but that fate is out of their hands at this moment. Ultimately, they will finish in the top three, and the priority should be on retaining this run of excellent form into the play-offs. Although the first team squad is shallow at the moment, there is enough talent in the midfield to test whichever Premiership team they could eventually face – they might even make a better attempt at it than the other contenders, but given the Bairns’ tendency to lose matches in two-game clusters this season, nothing can be guaranteed. JAM
3) Greenock Morton have been put out of their misery. Finally.
Greenock Morton’s day of reckoning has been long foreseen. It arrived on Saturday and, after seven years in the second tier, their relegation to League 1 was finally confirmed. The Ton had briefly shown defiance over the past fortnight but the manner of their defeat at Alloa Athletic was wholly befitting of a lamentable season – Kenny Shiels’s side returned to form as they surrendered to their fate.
As far back as September the writing was on the wall. Allan Moore’s position was already under scrutiny when they shocked Celtic in the League Cup at Parkhead and four days later, a defeat to Dundee at Dens Park sent Ton to the foot of the table; they have remained there ever since. Neither the result at Parkhead, nor the subsequent sacking of Moore in November, nor the appointment of Kenny Shiels in January could arrest the club’s wretched season; they have won just five league games all term.
“Scandalous,” tweeted Morton midfielder Joe McKee after the match. McKee was most likely referring to his manager’s decision to substitute him before the hour mark, just 25 minutes after McKee had replaced the injured David Robertson, but the adjective aptly describes Morton’s defending both at Recreation Park on Saturday and for much of the year. At 5ft 7in, Kevin Cawley doesn’t score many headers but couldn’t miss just 15 minutes into the game, unmarked and six yards out. Alloa’s second was equally elementary, with Ryan McCord heading home from a similar distance and with the same freedom. McCord could even have helped himself to a hat-trick and such was Alloa’s dominance, the score-line actually flattered the visitors.
Morton’s performance had the appearance of a charade, with players going through the motions. Even Dougie Imrie slumping to the ground in despair at full-time seemed hackneyed and disingenuous – it’s what you’re supposed to do when you’ve just been relegated, right? Alloa provided stark contrast: opposition runs were matched, bodies were put on the line and the whole team worked towards the collective good.
Now Morton must prepare for life in League 1 and outspoken octogenarian chairman Douglas Rae has some big decisions to make: is Kenny Shiels, with 12 months left on his contract, the right man to rebuild the squad? Can the club afford to remain full-time? Can they afford not to? A number of Morton’s squad are contracted until 2015 but wholesale changes are required. Shiels has a clear vision and a track record of bringing through young players but as evidenced by their back four on Saturday (which had an average age: 19.75), inexperienced youths need blended with solid professionals, the type of which have been badly missed at Cappielow this season.
A deserved word for the victors: while Shiels inherited a write-off in December, Smith was handed the keys to a reliable, if unspectacular, run-around in January with one meticulous previous owner. It wasn’t broken, so Smith didn’t fix it and he has now steered Alloa to almost certain safety – they have a seven point and 16-goal advantage over Cowdenbeath but face the division’s top three sides in their final fixtures. Paul Hartley deserves huge credit for establishing the platform over two-and-a-half years from which Alloa will enjoy a consecutive season in the second tier for the first time since 1984. Unlike at Cappielow, there is little cause for reinvention at the Recs. AG
4) Dunfermline Athletic are sleepwalking their way into the play-offs
So far, it has been a relatively straightforward season for Dunfermline Athletic. After fixing themselves in second place in early November, the Pars have enjoyed a comfortable campaign and, after their goalless draw with Forfar Athletic and Stranraer’s defeat at Arbroath they are guaranteed to finish the year as the best of the rest. Yet the ease in which the final third of the season has been played out has been partly down to the inadequacies of the sides immediately beneath them and their failure to piece together a consistent series of results, rather than their own merits.
Dunfermline’s recent form is a cause for concern. Since dismissing Arbroath 3-0 at the end of February, they have collected five points from their last seven fixtures; to put it into context, their paltry return is the joint poorest in the league alongside Brechin City and their record of four goals is the division’s worst. With three matches remaining, there is the danger that Dunfermline are sleepwalking their way into the play-offs.
Their place in the top four was confirmed several weeks ago and it gave Jim Jefferies the chance to rest key personnel and introduce fringe players into the starting XI against Forfar. “We were in a great position and that allowed me to do what I’d planned to do – to make a few changes,” he said after the match. “I made five changes, changed the system.” Yet his amendments made little impact on the contest.
Without Ross Forbes, Lawrence Shankland and Ryan Wallace, the side lacked incision and ruthlessness. They were limited to chances from set-pieces or speculative efforts from range, most of which were dealt with by the Forfar defence. On the rare occasions they did cut through their opponents, they were let down by careless finishing, no more so than when Ryan Thomson failed to connect with Alex Whittle’s well-placed centre from six yards. The Loons, meanwhile, had the best chances to score in the second half but Omar Kader contrived to pass up the most presentable of opportunities. A draw was the fairest outcome.
Who Dunfermline face in the play-off semi-finals has yet to be determined – Stranraer currently occupy third but seem to be doing their best to throw away their advantage over Ayr United and Stenhousemuir – but it would be incorrect for Jefferies and his players to assume they can hit peak level when they’re required to do so (just look at Rangers’ performance in their recent cup competitions – they were unable to raise their standards when called upon and ultimately lost out). They must play their way into form and if that means using their senior players for the remaining three games then so be it. It would be grossly unfortunate for Dunfermline to squander their promotion prospects at this late juncture. CGT
5) Forza Blue Toon!
With Annan Athletic having lost 1-2 away to East Stirlingshire, Peterhead’s 2-0 win at Clyde was enough to wrap up the inaugural League 2 championship. Goals from strikers Andy Rodgers and Rory McAllister consolidated what might look to have been another routine victory in a successful season, but it wasn’t like that at all.
Clyde gave as good as they got and were only wasteful with their goal-scoring opportunities. Stuart McColm’s driving runs up the left flank tested the Blue Toon’s right-back Graeme Sharp to the limit and, in an early counter attack, he accelerated past the outside of Scott Ross before laying off a presentable chance for Scott Ferguson inside the box – Ferguson had to swivel to face the goal and although his shot wasn’t the strongest as a result, Peterhead’s goalkeeper Graeme Smith barely knew about his right hand spinning the ball beyond the left-hand post.
A quarter of the way through the match, Peterhead showed how it was done with some pressure emanating from Sharp’s dribble towards the box. Clyde stopper Brian McQueen clattered into Jordan Brown at the edge of the box but the ball would only squirm to Andy Rodgers, who expertly feigned past Fraser McGhee and shot through the legs of David Marsh into the far corner.
Clyde would have a few more opportunities from McColm’s work, with Pat Scullion particularly guilty of missing a sitter with a free header created by a deep cross from the left in the second half. However, when the Clyde central defenders stood off McAllister he shot past Jamie Barclay to secure victory with just over 20 minutes to go. Apart from an earlier free-kick opportunity, McAllister hadn’t enjoyed a lot of chances to score but his precision was in contrast to Clyde’s profligacy that was no better summed up by Kieran MacDonald’s meek penalty at 0-2 down.
Thoughts must naturally turn to how Peterhead will do in League 1 next season. Jim McInally has a strong core who have played together for a number of years and only if they get picked apart and the team has to be rebuilt might there be serious problems. It helps having forwards who can score in excess of 15 or 20 goals and having McAllister signed up until 2015 will be vital – his ability to step up a level will be a huge asset for Peterhead’s ambition to consolidate in the league above.
For Clyde, they should be able to hold on to a play-off place, despite Berwick Rangers’ win over Elgin City. Anything less at this juncture would be a disappointment considering that the Bully Wee have been in the top four since October. If they wish to sneak a surprise promotion through the play-offs, however, they will need to learn to be as ruthless as Peterhead can be. JAM